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Hot spots: how a Chinese model’s freckles sparked a national debate

It’s hard to imagine a heated argument being caused by a few freckles on a model in a seemingly uncontroversial campaign for cosmetics. But this is exactly what happened in China earlier this year as traditional perceptions of beauty were put under the spotlight in an online debate that has polarised participants in the region.

The controversy began in February 2019 when Spanish fashion retailer Zara launched a campaign for cosmetics featuring Chinese model Jing Wen on the Chinese social media platform Sino Weibo. The 25-year-old model, who has worked for Prada and been featured on the covers of Vogue Italia and Vogue China, has a lightly freckled face. This is a rare feature among Asian people, sparking an unexpected row on social media.

“Ugly freckles”?

Some social media users said that the model’s freckled face is “ugly” and not representative of the nation’s typical facial features. One particularly incensed critic argued that “such pictures featuring an Asian model with freckles and an expressionless pie-shaped face mislead Westerner’s impressions about Asian women, and can lead to racism against Asian women.” Another commented: “cannot believe they pick a freckled face on behalf of Asian girls”, echoing the views of many on Sino Weibo.

Zara was quick to respond to the accusations, many of which inferred that the Chinese model’s freckles were not natural. In an interview on the Pear Video website, a representative from Zara said: “Our models are all photographed purely, the pictures aren’t changed and they’re not modified”. Other users on Weibo also defended the model’s natural freckles, describing her as “beautiful” and some said the criticisms amounted to “racial discrimination”.

The debate clearly touched a cultural nerve as the hashtag #Zara responds about the Chinese model advertisement# had been viewed 460 million times by the following day. Some even compared the campaign to the highly controversial Dolce & Gabbana advert in late 2018 which featured a Chinese model attempting to eat pizza and pasta with chopsticks. Amidst a highly critical backlash on social media by users who felt the advert was disrespectful to Chinese culture, Dolce & Gabbana was forced into cancelling a Shanghai fashion show and several prominent e-tailors removed the luxury brand from their websites.

Porcelain perfect

With flawless porcelain skin still perceived by many as the standard for female beauty in East Asia, Jing Wen herself has previously admitted to insecurities about her freckles. In an interview with Vogue in October 2016, she said: “When I was little, I really hated them because normally Asians don’t have them. In high school, I always tried to cover them, but now it’s okay. I like them, and that’s enough.”[1]

Even the state-run China Daily newspaper responded to the debate, saying that the negative comments over the freckles amounted to “over-sensitivity and a lack of cultural confidence”. It continued: “Only when we learn to tolerate each other in terms of aesthetic, will cultural confidence be owned by everyone.”[2]

Challenging conventions

Amidst all the furore, it must surely be welcomed when fashion houses challenge non-conventional stereotypes of beauty, such as the crystal-clear complexion of the traditionally beautiful Asian woman.

In fact, freckles have recently become a hot trend thanks in part to the high international profile of Meghan Markle, the American former actress who married Prince Harry in May 2018. Proudly displaying her freckles through very light make-up even on her wedding day, the hashtags #fakefreckles and #frecklesgang were trending soon after according to Vogue France. Cosmetic items such as the Topshop Freckle Pencil have been in high demand and some dedicated fashionistas have even gone as far as having semi-permanent freckles tattooed on their faces.

Meghan Markle, who is of mixed race origin, is incensed by the idea that her natural features should be altered digitally. “To this day, my pet peeve is when my skin tone is changed and my freckles are airbrushed out of a photo shoot.” For people with freckles everywhere, we think the sentiment is spot on.